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LI sex trafficking victims speak out

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Sex trafficking victims "Phoenix" and "Helen" could see two dozen clients a day during the years they provided sex for money in motels, hotels and private homes across Long Island.

They are now jailed in Riverhead, where the Suffolk County's Sheriff's Office Human Trafficking Unit is connecting them to counseling, substance-abuse treatment, job training and other services designed to help them break free from sex work and the pimps who exploited them.

“I have been through a lot and I am grateful to have people who want to help me,” said Phoenix, who like Helen, asked that her real name not be used for this story.

Phoenix, 27, who is at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office Riverhead Correctional Facility as she awaits sentencing on gun charges, said she worked as a prostitute for nearly a decade. The daughter of a mentally ill, drug-addicted mother and alcoholic father, Phoenix was removed from her troubled Wyandanch family and placed in a series of foster homes when she was a teenager, she said.

She met the man who became her first sex trafficker shortly after she left the foster care system. She was just 18, she said, and she didn’t have a job or vocational skills. The man promised a bright future, but pushed her into drugs and prostitution.

“I was thinking this guy could help me change my life but all he taught me was how to sell crack,” Phoenix said. “I didn’t want to be with him but I didn’t want to be alone. If he didn’t love me, who would?”

Another trafficker, Phoenix said, beat her frequently and once broke her jaw.

“I thought he was my boyfriend,” she said. “I was so in love with him that I couldn’t see past his [bull].”

Phoenix said she has been given a second chance at life, thanks to the sheriff’s Human Trafficking Unit, a three-officer team created last year to steer trafficking victims to in-house support programs and agencies such as Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island and New Hour for Women and Children — LI that provide substance-abuse treatment, counseling, health care, vocational assistance, housing and other support.

Sheriff Errol Toulon said the jail staff has always informally tried to steer trafficking survivors to resources, but he wanted to create a permanent team because trafficking is at the intersection of so many other issues plaguing Suffolk County, including opioids, gang violence and other crimes.

“We’re trying to take a look at the broader issues in Suffolk County,” Toulon said. “Whatever happens in the jails affects what happens on the streets, and vice versa.”

 Investigator Kellie Burghardt, a Suffolk correction officer and a member of the Human Trafficking Unit, said at least 10 percent of  about 115 women held in the county’s Riverhead and Yaphank jails at any given time are victims of human trafficking.

“These are the girls who are willing to admit it,” said correction officer Allison Baust, who is also on the trafficking team. “There are more who are unwilling to say ‘I am a victim.’ ”

Most, like Phoenix, struggle with deep emotional trauma from assaults, sexual abuse or neglect.

"People took advantage of my vulnerability,” Phoenix said. “It was easy to get into because you are desperate. You don’t know any better. You don’t know another way. You are scared.”

Helen, like many sex-trafficking survivors, was a drug addict who fell into prostitution to feed her addiction. The 28-year-old from Ronkonkoma, her arms still bruised from injecting heroin, said her pimp took whatever money she earned and doled out just enough dope to keep her from suffering painful withdrawals until the next day.

Helen said she was just 16 years old when she began working as a prostitute. She said she could see 20 clients, sometimes more, in a single night.

“There were guys who hit me or spit on me,” said Helen who is at the Riverhead jail while awaiting sentencing on a driving under the influence charge. “They would get mad at how much they were paying. I was bruised a lot of the time.

“The fact that I was younger made me more attractive,” she added.

Sgt. Erin Meunkle, a member of the sheriff’s team, said survivors of sex trafficking are often wary of offers of help from law enforcement officials. But their wariness eases as they get clean after months or years of drug abuse and dependence on their pimps.

“We begin to gain their trust,” Meunkle said. “As time goes by, they start to confide in us.”

Helen said she hopes to return to school after she completes her sentence, although she is not sure what she wants to study. Phoenix said she plans on attending a culinary school after she is released.

“People have to eat,” Phoenix said. “I want to open a restaurant called ‘Soul Body’ and make food that is good for the soul.”

Her advice to other girls and women trapped in sex work: Get out and get help.

“There are people who will help you leave that life,” she said. “There are people who care. You don’t have to live like that.”

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